In 1931, American documentary film-making trail blazer Robert Flaherty ("Nanook of the North") moved to the Aran Islands off the coast of Ireland for a period of three years. Although Flaherty pioneered by using real people to re-enact their everyday lives, he picked the most photogenic natives and sometimes created artificial "families" to "act" in front of his camera. The period of 1932 to 1934, when Flaherty filmed "Man of Aran" is the jumping off point for Martin McDonagh's first play The Cripple of Inishmaan in a West End revival that has transferred, with its cast intact, to the Cort Theatre.
It centers around Cripple Billy (Daniel Radcliffe), a disabled orphan in his late teens who has been raised by two townspeople, "Aunties" Kate (Ingrid Craigie) and Eileen (Gillian Hanna) on the Island of Inishmaan, one of the three Aram Islands. Billy is taunted by saucy Helen (Sarah Greene) and her dullard brother Bartley (Conor MacNeill). Billy wants to travel to the island where Flaherty is filming; for rumor has it that the Hollywood people are looking for talent to take back to America.
Into this mix McDonagh adds a town gossip, Johnnypateenmike (Pat Shortt) who is caring for his bedridden alcoholic mother (June Watson), a kindly doctor (at the performance I saw, Aidan Redmond in for Gary Lilburn) and a disillusioned boatman, Babby-bobby (Pádraic Delaney), whose wife has died of tuberculosis the year before. If you examine character names like Johnnypateeenmike or Babby-bobby, you'll understand the tone of the play. It's a heightened look at a stone-grey landscape and barren lives, a 1930's Ireland filtered through both the author's cynicism and affection. The playwright affectionately satirizes a century or two of "Oirish" playwriting and humor in much the way Joe Orton twisted the configurations of the well-made drawing room comedy.
McDonagh's language is delicious. I can't tell you if it's his invention or his keen ear. When have you last heard a carton of eggs referred to as "a boxine?" On a tirade, Blasphemous Helen sums up an argument by declaring that "Jesus was full of himself." And Johnnypateenmike, trying to find an excuse for Mammy's drinking says "She's been forgetting her troubles. For the last sixty-five years." When the doctor threatens to show Jonnypateenmike his mother's liver should she die, the son replies: "No thanks, it's bad enough looking at her face."
This is the third production of The Cripple of Inishmaan to be mounted in New York; the first one “home grown” (with a US cast) at the Public Theatre, directed by Jerry Zaks, the second one an Irish import directed by Gerry Hynes; and while both of those were excellently rendered (the Zaks albeit more coolly than ideal), this one, imported from London’s West End and directed by Michael Grandage, is the warmest, and the one that seems to have the most affection for its characters. This is important, I think, because the playwright’s sense of irony and reversal can be harsh, and the difference of a few degrees one way or another can be the difference between a moment of narrative pathos and a moment of narrative cruelty. (Even off this production, a playwright colleague of mine feels it’s a “mean” play, but I have to say I don’t find it so. One might argue, though, that McDonagh looks at Irish country people with the same unsentimental eye that characterized the way Moredecai Richler looked at fellow Jews from his native St. Urbain Street in Montreal, which often prompted baseless charges of anti-Semitism. He refuses to romanticize.) Some of this has to do with Daniel Radcliffe in the title role, because he brings to it something that his predecessors didn’t, at least not nearly so much: genuine charm. I don’t think he works at it, I think it’s merely a natural facet of his persona, but it informs his character arc with a more sympathetic sense of purpose; and with his character at the center, that just naturally affects the wonderful actors/characters around him. It’s a fascinating alchemy.
This production was playing in London when I made my last visit there and I avoided it, despite the good reviews, because I felt this was a play I just didn’t need to see again. I’m glad it made the trip across the pond to prove me wrong. It made me quite happy. I imagine it will do the same for you.
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